Saturday, January 8, 2011

Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way

I love this little book: NOW ALL WE NEED IS A TITLE Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way by Andre Bernard.

Bernard reveals the quirky stories behind some of the most famous book titles in the English language. Over a hundred titles are detailed in crisply edited, fun anecdotes. Who knew that coming up with the right title for a book could be so happenstance, so spur of the moment, so chancey?

Would you buy a fictional book titled: PANSY? Well, that was the original title of GONE WITH WIND. I kid you not. THE GREAT GATSBY was originally titled TRIMALCHIO IN WEST EGG, until saner heads prevailed.

Authors face the title dilemma with every book. Does the title really matter? "I have never been a title man," groused John Steinbeck. "I don't gibve a damn what it is called." (Despite his tough stance, this was quite untrue. Steinbeck worked hard at his titles and the results are among the most memorable in American literature.)

Author Charles Portis wrote: A writer who does cherish his title would probably do well to hold it in reserve and not present it until two or three others, all duds, have been duly rejected, leaving the editor with his editorial honor intact.

Titles We're Glad Got Changed
  • The Mute was changed to THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER
  • At This Point In Time was changed to ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN
  • Private Fleming, His Various Battles was changed to THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE
  • Judah: A Tale of the Christ was changed to BEN-HUR
  • Before the Anger was changed to ROOTS
  • First Impressions was changed to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
  • To Climb the Wall was changed to THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE
  • The House of the Faith was changed to BRIDESHEAD REVISITED
  • It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet was changed to ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL
  • They Don't Build Statues to Businessmen was changed to VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
  • The Kingdom by the Sea was changed to LOLITA
A story about Raymond Chandler:
...Chandler sent the manuscript of THE BRASHER DOUBLOON off to his publisher who as usual loved the book but hated the title and who wrote back to Chandler that booksellers would pronounce 'brasher' as 'brassiere.' Chandler explained that a brasher was a late-eighteenth-century coin, but then agreed that booksellers' needs came first. "How about THE HIGHT WINDOW?" he suggested. "It is simple, suggestive, and points to the ultimate essential clue."

I've read THE HIGH WINDOW and like it very much. Funny thing: the movie version of Chandler's book went back to the original title, THE BRASHER DOUBLOON. The film starred George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe.

While finishing THE LADY IN THE LAKE Raymond Chandler wrote to his publisher, "I'm trying to think up a good title for you to want me to change."

From early in the book, I love this story of the haphazard way the blockbuster, bestseller JAWS received its evocative title:

Peter Benchley remembers that "JAWS was the last, desperate compromise between me and my editor some twenty minutes before the book had to go to press. I had fiddled with a hundred alternatives, more or less. GREAT WHITE, THE SHARK, LEVIATHAN RISING, THE JAWS OF DEATH...At last my editor and I agreed that we didn't like any of the suggested titles, and in fact, the only word we liked in any permutation was 'Jaws'. I recall saying something to the effect of, "Screw it, then, let's call it JAWS," and my editor saying something like, "Okay, what the hell..." My father didn't like it, my agent didn't like it, my wife didn't like it, and I didn't much like it. But the bottom line was, who cares? Nobody reads first novels anyway."

NOW ALL WE NEED IS A TITLE by Andre Bernard is a fun way to spend an evening when you're not feeling in the mood to read anything lengthy, involved or requiring deep thought.


  1. Alot of good news and info i didn't know!! thanks for the Blog !! Judy

  2. You're welcome! :) Yeah, this is a fun book.

  3. This looks like a lot of fun!

  4. Oh, it definitely is. Some of it jaw-droppingly so. :)

  5. I love this sort of thing. Almost as much as those lists of movie casts where they tell you who was supposed to play a role that went to someone else. Would Gone With the Wind have been such a success with Bette Davis as Scarlett? Sometimes the best book titles & movie casting is serendipitous.

  6. Lyn: I have several of these quirky little books. One of them ROTTEN REJECTIONS (which I posted about a few months ago), spotlights famous books and the fools that rejected them. :) Also, IN THE BEGINNING, which spotlights first lines of famous books.

    That Hollywood casting book (can't remember its name though I've got it here somewhere) is amazing to read. Serendipity is right, Lyn. Some of it boggles the mind.

    I'm going to try and hunt it down so I can post about it. Thanks for reminding me.

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  8. Interesting. Could you provide us with the publishing details? Thanks.

  9. A great entry in a thought-provoking blog. Great - i will be dropping by regularly

  10. neer: I think the book is available on Amazon. It was published in 1994 but, far as I know it's still in print. The publisher is W.W. Norton. It's a small trade paperback. The author, Andre Bernard also wrote ROTTEN REJECTIONS. If you want the ISBN, let me know.

  11. Zelda: thanks so much for dropping by. And thanks for the compliment. Much appreciated. ;)

  12. Very interesting post, Yvette! I agree that most of the working titles didn't have the allure that the final published titles did!

    I often wish I could be more creative in how I wrote the title of each blog post I write. Not an easy task!

  13. Pat: Oh, me too. Titles can be the pits to come up with. I get stalled all the time trying to think of something just right.

    I wonder if it's just familiarity that makes us think better of the titles we know and love. But really, TRIMALCHIO IN WEST EGG for THE GREAT GATSBY?


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